Jerry Waddell remembers how they ducked behind the oak wood pews when a man entered the church and started shooting.
It was 1988, and Waddell had never heard of a shooting in a church – certainly not in Emporia, Kansas.
He’s not sure what went through his head, but when he looked up over the pew and realized the shooter was in the middle of loading a new clip, Waddell seized the chance to act.
He ran as hard and fast as he could toward the shooter, who backed out the door fumbling to get the clip in his gun. Then Waddell hurled a hymnal at the shooter, hitting him in the back of the head.
He would joke later about concealed carry hymnals.
“I don’t know exactly what my thoughts were at the time, but I was angry, mad that somebody was interrupting the church,” Waddell said.
When he caught up to the man, Waddell slammed into him with a “football tackle.” Other members of the church caught up to them and helped hold the man down until police arrived.
One churchgoer had been killed, shot in the heart.
“The bottom line is in today’s world, 20 years later, I’m fully convinced churches are soft targets and one of the easiest soft targets,” Waddell said.
After a shooting claimed the lives of 26 people at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, many people are realizing that places of worship can make an easy target for people seeking to inflict violence.
Experts say that may be true, but also that churches can take steps to be prepared if violence crosses their thresholds.
Churches as targets
Carl Chinn, a former building engineer for Focus on the Family who now tracks violence in churches, says churches can become targets because the people inside are often “in denial that anything would ever happen there” and because the church is meant to be a sanctuary. Chinn is originally from Pratt, Kansas, but now lives in Colorado Springs.
There have been more than 1,500 deadly force incidents at faith-based organizations since 1999, according to Chinn.
More than 450 resulted in someone’s death.
Chinn’s data, which he compiles through news reports, indicates that 2017 is one of the worst years for violent deaths in American places of worship, with 108 so far. The worst years before this were 2012, with 76 violent deaths, and 2015, with 77, Chinn said in a news release.
Places of worship aren’t usually attacked because of hatred of that religion, Chinn said. Rather, they’re more likely to be attacked because of domestic issues.
Churches can also be harder to secure because they welcome everyone, said Dave Fowler, director of facilities at Eastminster Presbyterian Church. Some have many entrances.
“Not everyone thinks that God will let anything bad happen,” Fowler said. “That’s something else you have to overcome.”
Chinn said he points to a verse in Nehemiah, where Nehemiah says the people “prayed to God and posted a guard.”
“Most churches I know of are already praying,” Chinn said. “Now that they’ve done that they need to follow Nehemiah and post a guard.”
Posting a guard
Even though he had never received training on how to handle a church shooter, Waddell’s response was what experts recommend: Throw whatever you have at the shooter, fight if you have to, overwhelm the shooter with sheer numbers.
LeSean Tarkington, senior pastor at Grant Chapel AME in Wichita, said people in church need to train for how to handle an emergency.
He came from First AME Church of Los Angeles, a church that was threatened by white supremacists in 1993. The plot to bomb and shoot up the church was foiled by the FBI.
“In this day and age it is very crucial that the church have a disaster relief plan,” Tarkington said. “The church is vulnerable and the church has an open door policy where you say come one come all. Everyone come, everyone is welcome. People see the church as a place to seek refuge. Some people take advantage of the ministry.”
Tarkington said his church is considering what it means to maintain that open-door policy while having security protocols. Ushers walk the campus during the service and the church updates its security system every two to three years.
Other things experts and pastors suggest:
- Keep a police scanner in the building
- Have radios and cameras in the church
- Know and communicate with local law enforcement
- Conduct training at the church
- Have a personal plan for what to do if something happens. Know where the exits are.
- Remember “Run, hide, fight” and choose quickly between the three options should something happen
Greg Crane, founder of ALICE Training Institute, said people need to make as hard a target as possible if they find themselves in a shooting.
“Assuming a static and passive position does not do that,” he said. Ideally, that means getting out. If that’s not possible, it means taking back control, he said.
“There’s no rocket science to it,” Crane said. “Use your numerical advantage to swarm and take back control.”
It might be a good idea to throw something at the attacker’s face, he said, distracting them and forcing them to take a defensive posture.
The leaders in Waddell’s church, a different one than he attended in 1988, have also been discussing how to best stay safe. After the shooting in Sutherland Springs, the church decided to invite Chinn to do a review of security.
Waddell still lives in Emporia, where he hears news of other church shootings across the country.
“In the world we live in today it’s a serious thing and it happens regularly,” Waddell said. “We need to be aware of it and protect ourselves and others.”